canada, canadian search engine, free email, canada news
Russia entrusted with Canada's top satellite secrets
Security expert calls launch agreement a 'gift to Russian military intelligence'
David Pugliese
The Ottawa Citizen

One of Canada's most sophisticated satellites, designed to keep watch over the country's coasts and the Arctic, will now be launched by a Russian rocket instead of an American one.

But, as one security analyst is warning, this new development will provide that country's spy agency with a potential windfall of secret technology.

Radarsat-2, one of the jewels of Canada's space program, was supposed to be put into orbit by the U.S., but will now be launched on a Soyuz rocket some time in December. Radarsat-2 is considered the world's most sophisticated radar satellite, capable of transmitting high-resolution images, day or night, of the Earth's surface.

In addition, the Department of National Defence has a $60 -million program to use the satellite to monitor approaches to Canada's coasts and its Arctic territories. Radarsat-2 will be capable of conducting surveillance on vessels out to 1,000 nautical miles from Canada's shores.

David Harris, a former official with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says having the Russians put Radarsat-2 into orbit will provide that country's spies with potential access to some of Canada's most sophisticated technological secrets.

"The Russians have an aggressive competitive intelligence operation going on that is targeting Canada and the West," said Mr. Harris, president of INSIGNIS Strategic Research, a private security firm based in Ottawa.

"This is a post-New Year's gift to Russian military intelligence."

Such spy operations are aimed at acquiring western technology, which is then transferred to Russian industry for defence and aerospace products, he added.

Mr. Harris said Russian agents would be "professionally negligent" if they did not attempt to gain access to the Radarsat-2 technology. He noted it will be very difficult to ensure around-the-clock security for the satellite.

But Bruce Stott, vice-president of space missions for MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates, said an extensive security plan has been put in place for the spacecraft. The Radarsat-2 program is being funded by the Canadian Space Agency and MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates of Richmond, B.C.

Mr. Stott said Pinkerton security officers will physically guard the satellite, and U.S. defence technical officials will also monitor the system while it is in Russia. Officials with Canada's Defence Department and other federal agencies were also involved in determining how to best protect the satellite.

"We received Canadian government approval to switch the launch to a Soyuz based on these plans," he said.

He noted that the Russians have built a commercial business out of launching spacecraft for other countries and business, and they also guarantee the security surrounding spacecraft.

Radarsat-2 was originally supposed to be put into orbit in 2003 by a Delta-2 rocket launched from Vandenberg air force base in California. That launch was being handled under a contract with U.S. aerospace giant Boeing.

But well after the contract was signed, mechanical and technical incompatibility issues between Radarsat-2 and the Delta-2 rocket surfaced, according to MacDonald Dettwiler officials. Because of that, the decision was made to use the Soyuz rocket.

According to one Canadian Space Agency report, the cost of the Radarsat-2 program is estimated at $521 million, with the federal government contributing $430 million and the balance of $91 million provided by MacDonald Dettwiler.

Officials with the space agency refused to comment, adding there is a decree from the Privy Council Office that interviews with the news media on policy-related issues are not allowed during the federal election.

Alistair Edgar, who studies defence and aerospace trade issues at Wilfrid Laurier University, said if the satellite is closely monitored, there should not be an issue of sensitive technology being revealed.

He noted that the U.S. and Russia are co-operating on joint space ventures, so a degree of trust has built up between the nati ons. The U.S. space agency, NASA, is also using the Soyuz rocket to transport some of its astronauts to the international space station.

But Mr. Harris cited the controversy in the late 1990s, when an American firm used a Chinese rocket to launch its satellite. That sparked a series of investigations by the U.S. on whether sensitive space technology was obtained by the Chinese government, allowing it to improve its ballistic missiles.

Defence Minister Bill Graham has said the military's program to make use of Radarsat-2, dubbed Polar Epsilon, will play a crucial role in safeguarding Canadian borders.

No date has been set for the Radarsat-2 launch in December, but it will lift off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Radarsat-2, which will be in orbit for about seven years, will replace the Radarsat-1 satellite. Besides its military applications, Radarsat-2 will also be used to support fishing, oil and gas exploration, offshore drilling and mapping and ocean research.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

Copyright © 2006 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.